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The Death of James

Here we will look at the traditional accounts of the death of James with sources that date to the first two centuries of the Common Era.

  • The most reliable account of James' death can be found in Josephus' Antiquities. In the year 62 CE, the High Priest Ananus, took advantage of a power vacuum in the Roman procuratorship and had James convicted by the Sanhedrin and stoned to death.

  • The traditions narrated by Clement of Alexandria and Hegesippus already show signs of legendary development but agree with Josephus' accounts on the major points.

  • The historical evidence is strong that James' was succeeded by another relative of Jesus, his cousin Symeon; showing that the Jerusalem Church worked on a dynastic principle.

  • The death of James was the first major blow to the Jerusalem Church.

Josephus Antiquities

The death of James is not narrated in the New Testament. The earliest account of James' death is given by Josephus (c37-c100) Antiquities; published around 93 CE:

Antiquities of the Jews 20:9:1
And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity [to exercise his authority]. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, [or, some of his companions]; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king [Agrippa], desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a Sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest.

Josephus account reads like straightforward history. Taking advantage of the interregnum between two procurators (Festus [a] had just died and Albinus had yet to reach Jerusalem), the high priest Ananus hastily convened the Sanhedrin and had James and a few others condemned to death. Some Pharisees complained to both King Agrippa II and to Albinus. They succeeded in this and Ananus was replaced by Jesus bar Damneus. That the execution of James was politically motivated we can be certain since many devout Jews protested against his execution. We are no longer privy to the real reason but we can tell that it was a Sadducee (Ananus) that had him killed and the Pharisees [b] were the people that sought justice for him.

The timing of the incident, the interregnum between Festus and Albinus, allows us to date this quite accurately to the summer of 62 CE. [1] Our confidence in the historicity of this account is bolstered by the fact that it was probably an eye witness account. Josephus mentioned in his Autobiography that he left Jerusalem for Rome when he was twenty-six years old. He date of birth was most likely around 37 CE. So at the time of James execution, the twenty five year old Josephus was a priest in Jerusalem.[2]

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Clement of Alexandria and Hegesippus

Eusebius' (c260-340) History of the Church preserved the accounts of two second century church fathers on the death of James. The first is by Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215)

History of the Church 2:1:3-4
But Clement in the sixth book of his Hypotyposes writes thus: "For they say that Peter and James and John after the ascension of our Savior, as if also preferred by our Lord, strove not after honor, but chose James the Just bishop of Jerusalem." But the same writer, in the seventh book of the same work, relates also the following things concerning him: "The Lord after his resurrection imparted knowledge to James the Just and to John and Peter, and they imparted it to the rest of the apostles, and the rest of the apostles to the seventy, of whom Barnabas was one. But there were two Jameses: one called the Just, who was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple and was beaten to death with a club by a fuller, and another who was beheaded."

The second is that of Hegesippus (c110-180):

History of the Church 2:23:4-18
The manner of James' death has been already indicated by the above-quoted words of Clement, who records that he was thrown from the pinnacle of the temple, and was beaten to death with a club. But Hegesippus, who lived immediately after the apostles, gives the most accurate account in the fifth book of his Memoirs. He writes as follows: "James, the brother of the Lord, succeeded to the government of the Church in conjunction with the apostles. He has been called the Just by all from the time of our Savior to the present day; for there were many that bore the name of James...[W]hen many even of the rulers believed, there was a commotion among the Jews and Scribes and Pharisees, who said that there was danger that the whole people would be looking for Jesus as the Christ. Coming therefore in a body to James they said, 'We entreat thee, restrain the people; for they are gone astray in regard to Jesus, as if he were the Christy We entreat thee to persuade all that have come to the feast of the Passover concerning Jesus; for we all have confidence in thee. For we bear thee witness, as do all the people, that thou art just, and dost not respect per sons. Do thou therefore persuade the multitude not to be led astray concerning Jesus. For the whole people, and all of us also, have confidence in thee. Stand therefore upon the pinnacle of the temple, that from that high position thou mayest be clearly seen, and that thy words may be readily heard by all the people. For all the tribes, with the Gentiles also, are come together on account of the Passover.' The aforesaid Scribes and Pharisees therefore placed James upon the pinnacle of the temple, and cried out to him and said: Thou just one, in whom we ought all to have: confidence, forasmuch as the people are led, astray after Jesus, the crucified one, declare to us, what is the gate of Jesus.' And he answered with a loud voice,' Why do ye ask me concerning Jesus, the Son of Man ? He himself sitteth in heaven at the right hand of the great Power, and is about to come upon the clouds of heaven.' And when many were fully convinced and gloried in the testimony of James, and said, 'Hosanna to the Son of David,' these same Scribes and Pharisees said again to one another,' We have done badly in supplying such testimony to Jesus. But let us go up and throw him down, in order that they may be afraid to believe him.' And they cried out, saying, 'Oh! oh! the just man is also in error.' And they fulfilled the Scripture written in Isaiah, ' Let us take away the just man, because he is troublesome to us: therefore they shall eat the fruit of their doings.' So they went up and threw down the just man, and said to each other, 'Let us stone James the Just.' And they began to stone him, for he was not killed by the fall; but he turned and knelt down and said, 'I entreat thee, Lord God our Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.' And while they were thus stoning him one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, the son of the Rechabites, who are mentioned by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, 'Cease, what do ye? The just one prayeth for you. And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them."

Clement's account contradicted Josephus's somewhat. According to Clement, James was killed by being thrown down from the Temple; with the coup de grace being delivered by a laundryman's implement.

Hegesippus' account combined both traditions: he said that James was taken to the top of the Temple and thrown down (in agreement with Clement), stoned (in agreement with Josephus) and was finally killed with a blow to the head from a fuller's club (again in agreement with Clement).

We have already given reasons why we think Josephus' account is probably the historically correct version. Clement's account may have been the first step of how Christian tradition had started to develop the story. The normal procedure for stoning by the Sanhedrin, as given in the Mishnah, did require throwing down the condemned man, but only from a height twice that of a human being. But as Gerd Ludemann pointed out, this could not be the pinnacle of the Temple which would have been a lot higher. [3]

Hegesippus' account, as we have mentioned above, tends towards a harmony of the various traditions he received. Note that he did not discard any strand of the tradition, he simply tried to "fit them all" into his story. This gives us confidence that Hegessipus, while he may tend to harmonize, tends to preserve the traditional stories he received. However, some of the details in the story tells us that his sources no longer had any exact knowledge of first century Palestine; differentiating between "the Jews" and "the scribes and the Pharisees" attests to this. [4] The reference to the Pharisees as taking part in action against James contradicts Josephus' account which stated that they protested James' death. This tendency towards blaming all Jews for calamities that befell the early Christian is a sure sign of a more developed tradition; a tradition that started with the gospels. [5]

There is still another discrepancy between Hegesippus' account and Josephus'. Hegesippus mentioned that the siege of Vespasian happened "immediately" after the death of James. This means that he had James death occur just before the siege of Jerusalem by Vespasian, or in 67 CE. This contradicts Josephus' account above, which firmly dates the event to 62 CE. It is of course possible that Hegesippus was speaking rather loosely. In any case, Josephus' account is to be considered the more reliable one. Josephus' date is also confirmed elsewhere by Eusebius (in Chronicles 2). [6]

These traditions however agree with Josephus in stating that James' death happened before the Jewish War and was due to some members of the Temple authority.

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Symeon: James' Successor

James was succeeded by his cousin (another relative of Jesus!) Symeon. The account is narrated in two places in Eusebius' History of the Church:

History of the Church 4:22:4-5
The same author [i.e. Hegesippus] also describes the beginnings of the heresies which arose in his time, in the following words: "And after James the Just had suffered martyrdom, as the Lord had also on the same account, Symeon, the son of the Lord's uncle, Clopas, was appointed the next bishop. All proposed him as second bishop because he was a cousin of the Lord. Therefore, they called the Church a virgin, for it was not yet corrupted by vain discourses."

History of the Church 3:11:1-2
After the martyrdom of James and the conquest of Jerusalem which immediately followed, it is said that those of the apostles and disciples of the Lord that were still living came together from all directions with those that were related to the Lord according to the flesh (for the majority of them also were still alive) to take counsel as to who was worthy to succeed James. They all with one consent pronounced Symeon, the son of Clopas, of whom the Gospel also makes mention; to be worthy of the episcopal throne of that parish. He was a cousin, as they say, of the Savior.

The source of this information (at least in the first account) was Hegesippus. While there may be uncertainty as to the details of the appointment, we can be quite confident that the basic fact presented here- that Symeon succeeded James to the leadership of the Jerusalem church some time after 62 CE - is trustworthy.

There are a couple other considerations that tell us the succession of Jesus' cousin to the leadership of the church he founded was historical. Firstly, during the time of Hegesippus (mid to late second century CE), there was no longer any dynastic principle involved in the selection of Christian bishops-thus it is unlikely that this story was concocted out of the sitz im leben of his time. Secondly we have in Eusebius another source which confirms the fact that Symeon succeeded James, we give the passage below: [7]

History of the Church 4:5:3
The chronology of the bishops of Jerusalem I have nowhere found preserved in writing; for tradition says that they were all short lived. But I have learned this much from writings, that until the siege of the Jews, which took place under Adrian [Eusebius was referring to the Bar Kochba revolt which took place under the reign of Hadrian-the revolt lasted for four years from 131-135 CE-PT] , there were fifteen bishops in succession there. All of whom are said to have been of Hebrew descent, and to have received the knowledge of Christ in purity, so that they were approved by those who were able to judge of such matters, and were deemed worthy of the episcopate. For their whole church consisted then of believing Hebrews who continued from the days of the apostles until the siege which took place at this time; in which siege the Jews, having again rebelled against the Romans, were conquered after severe battles. But since the bishops of the circumcision ceased at this time, it is proper to give here a list of their names from the beginning. The first, then, was James, the so-called brother of the Lord; the second, Symeon; the third, Justus; the fourth, Zacchaeus; the fifth, Tobias; the sixth, Benjamin; the seventh, John; the eighth, Matthias; the ninth, Philip; the tenth, Seneca; the eleventh, Justus; the twelfth, Levi; the thirteenth, Ephres; the fourteenth, Joseph; and finally, the fifteenth, Judas. These are the bishops of Jerusalem that lived between the age of the apostles and the time referred to, all of them belonging to the circumcision.

The important thing here is to note from the appointment of Symeon is the dynastic succession of the Jerusalem Church. Only relatives of Jesus (termed desposynoi, or "sons of the house") could lead movement. [8]

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Impact of James' Death on the Jerusalem Church

The death of James was the first serious blow to the Jerusalem church. James supremacy was recognized throughout Christendom. We have seen how his emissaries were obeyed without question at Antioch. We have seen that James was opposed to the law free mission of Paul. Yet even then Paul could not afford to cut himself off from the Jerusalem Church and tried (unsuccessfully) to buy his way back into the good books of James.

Thus James was able to keep the Gentile wing of the Church in check from the excesses of Paul. His extreme piety helped keep the movement respected within the Jewish community. With James gone, these two sides were to eventually, as we shall see later, come down hard on the decendents of the Jerusalem Church, calling them heretics and minim.

The fact that we know very little about Symeon tells us that his authority and prestige did not come anywhere near to that of James'. James death could not have come at a worse time, for the second major blow, the Jewish War, was just around the corner. [9]

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a.Festus was the procurator with whom Paul appealed to the emperor during his imprisonment in Jerusalem. (Acts 25:11-12)
b.We have already shown elsewhere why the "most equitable of citizens" mentioned by Josephus were very likely Pharisees.


1.Painter, Just James: p136
2.Ludemann, Heretics: p50
3.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p173
4.Brandon, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church: p97
5.Painter, Just James: p128-129
6.ibid: p130
7.Ludemann, Opposition to Paul in Jewish Christianity: p119-120
8.ibid: p120
9.Bernheim, James Brother of Jesus: 258-260

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